Coconut weaving workshops for all ages assist in community rebuild on Santo's west coast. Photo: Christopher Bartlett.

Traditional weaving methods have become essential to Vanuatu’s Cyclone Harold recovery as thousands face more than a month with no basic shelter, Teuila Fuatai reports.

Nearly two months on from Tropical Cyclone Harold, more than 2500 people living on the west coast of Vanuatu’s largest island, Espiritu Santo, have yet to receive a single tarpaulin for shelter.

While emergency food supplies arrived by boat, and engineers have been flown in to map new water systems destroyed by the storm, no shelter and building materials have come.

Harold, which hit on April 6, coincided with the country’s Covid-19 lockdown. The category five cyclone went on to destroy or significantly damage all homes and structures on Santo’s remote west coast – leaving more than 500 families without proper shelter. Its destruction and ongoing impact in northern islands like Santo has been compared to 2015’s devastating Cyclone Pam. Further, Covid-19 protocols have contributed to delays in relief efforts, with strict travel and decontamination requirements hampering aid transport to communities.

Vanuatu has no identified cases of Covid-19. Authorities have continued to enforce significant precautions to maintain that, as its health system has no capacity to handle a widespread outbreak. No foreign aid workers have been allowed to assist with relief efforts on-the-ground. Overseas aid equipment – including from New Zealand – must also be decontaminated before it is distributed, adding to delays.

On Santo’s west coast, the severely limited amount of official assistance has led to the rollout of a special, grassroots coconut weaving programme.

Set up by the Santo Sunset Environment Network and Edenhope Foundation, the programme employs nine weavers, originally from the southern island of Tanna, to hold multi-day training workshops in west coast villages. Coconut weaving is a valued skill in Tanna as the trees are often utilised for building materials. Normally, coconut fronds are considered waste materials on the west coast. However, Harold’s destruction of plants and crops traditionally prioritised – including Natangura palms used for roof thatching – has resulted in a reorienting of resources. Based on knowledge of weaving and customs from Tanna, downed and dried coconut fronds – readily available in Harold’s aftermath on the west coast – have been identified as a useful rebuild resource.

Santo’s west coast communities are some of the most remote in Vanuatu. Photo: Christopher Bartlett.

Notably, the Tanna weavers were chosen because of their proximity to west coast communities. They live in Luganville – Santo’s urban centre on its southern coast. While there are no roads on the west coast, villages near the water are accessible by boat. Travel between villages, including to those located in the hills, occurs via bush tracks which are currently littered with downed trees.

Benua Jamu, a member of the Santo Sunset Environment Network who is from the village of Elia, says the workshops have been extremely useful. They were held in about 15 of the worst-affected communities, including his, and involved men, women, and children.

“People were very glad because it’s new to us,” Jamu says via satellite phone.

“It’s a Tanna tradition in the southern province of Tafea, so they came and explained and trained us with coconut huts or coconut roofing.”

Learning to work with coconut leaves has been a gradual process for residents, and a lot of patience was required in the early stages of workshops, he says.

“It’s a very good idea, but it’s completely new, so the women and the men [aren’t] as fast as those from Tanna.”

So far, each community that held a workshop has managed to complete at least one house. Bamboo, found locally, provides framing for structures. The pieces, and roofing, are secured by any available rope-material – including mosquito netting and bush rope.

Team effort: Coconut thatching for new houses. Photo: Christopher Bartlett.

Currently, completed houses are being used as communal spaces, like community kitchens, or storage facilities, Jamu says. Rebuilding of private homes, as well as structures for schooling, is the next step, he says.

“The primary schools in our area haven’t started yet – that’s a big need. While the people are still busy trying to recover and regroup, and mend their homes, they are also moving to rebuild the schools. It will take time.”

Dr Christopher Bartlett, a climate change scientist who was on Santo when Harold hit, has remained on the west coast to assist local recovery efforts. Normally based in Port Vila, Bartlett says the weaving programme has been an important development in rebuild efforts.

“We still don’t have clean fixed water, but at least they’re taking those steps now to get those systems organised. It may be months and months before they’re installed, but the first step is done,” he says.

“In terms of food, the government is preparing another food push, but I don’t expect that for another couple of weeks. And believe it or not, we still haven’t received a single tarpaulin for any of the houses – so things are very slow.“

The response to the cyclone from the Vanuatu government has been criticised as inadequate by community leaders on the west coast. Particularly frustrating was the slow mobilisation of initial relief in the immediate aftermath of the storm. It took nearly a month for a shipment of emergency food and medical supplies to arrive.

 Road to recovery: the first of many new roofs. Photo: Christopher Bartlett.

Bartlett: “We’re kind-of resigned to the fact that this is going to be a slow and painful process for a long time.

“I think there’s a general feeling that everybody is doing what they can. Even though everybody is frustrated at all levels, I think everybody realises that the situation we’re in, with the multiple disasters and the Covid context and the remoteness – it’s as fast as we can expect.”

The weaving programme, coordinated entirely by local organisations, recognised the need to focus on the knowledge and materials immediately available to west coast communities.

“We’re doing everything we can. It just demonstrates really good resilience and motivation not to wait and move forward,” Bartlett says.

The programme’s initial success has also prompted discussions of further “traditional knowledge exchange”. Bartlett says leaders have looked at utilising builders skilled in traditional construction of posts and frames which are cyclone-resistant.

“So, not just the roof but the whole structure, because we feel like shelter is the main issue, and since we’ve got this local traditional expertise, why not start that programme?” he says.

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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